The Senegal River runs roughly 1,020 miles long. Five hundred and fifteen of those miles make up the border between Mauritania and Senegal. In places, the river and its flood paths can be as vast as 12 miles wide. It’s in this unique oasis thousands of rural, isolated villages have existed for hundreds of years, like my home in Yacine Lakke. The river buffers us from the encroaching Sahara Desert and its annual flooding allows for corn, sorghum, and rice to be planted year after year in the same clay-heavy fields. The Pulaar ethnic group populates most of the north of Senegal, and certainly all along the Senegal River on both sides. However, from about ten km north of my location near the river to just south of Bakel, the Soninke ethnic group claims every village on the river and some others off in the bush in sites like Yacine Lakke. There is also a small minority of the Bambara ethnic group in the Bakel area that only exists in a few other places around the country. None of these ethnic groups share a common language and they rarely or never collaborate with each other or inter-marry. Nevertheless, they all share a similar culture of subsistence agriculture, livestock herding, and large, family compound living situations. All three ethnic groups also practice Islam (but keep separate mosques).
I’ve spent the past two weeks at site biking around my strange and fascinating little microcosm of the Senegal River and discovering villages I never knew existed. I try to leave early in the morning, when it’s still cool and the sun isn’t frying my skin yet, and bike on bush paths in the direction of the river. As I said earlier, all the towns and villages along the river are Soninke. Most Soninke people speak some Pulaar, or will go running for someone who does if you show up looking hot and sweaty on a bike and speaking in Pulaar. An exception to this happened about a week ago when I arrived at a boutique in Moudery, a very large Soninke town on the river of around 5,000 people, to buy water. Although it’s a more developed town with concrete houses and electricity, there is no paved road to Moudery and not too much outside traffic coming through. So when I walked into the boutique and asked for water in Pulaar the kid behind the counter shot up and ran out the door yelling toubac (foreigner) before I could even try asking in French. I stood there for a second, hot, tired, and annoyed and trying to figure out what to do, when the kid came back, grinning from ear to ear, with a middle aged man. The man came up, shook my hand, and started chatting away in German… Of all the languages in Senegal this was one of the last I ever expected to encounter when trying to buy water in a rural border town. And when I finally managed to convey to the man that I didn’t speak German he was surprised to the point of indignation. A white person who can’t speak German! The nerve, I know. But I eventually bought my water and kept going. My next self-improvement assignment will be to learn Soninke greetings and the word for water.
In my treks along the river I saw four camels being watered on the Mauritanian side late one morning (they’re SO much taller than I realized), met some Soninke women washing laundry in the river and carrying firewood up the bank from canoes that had transported it from the Mauritanian side (probably some sort of laws broken there), and watched a herd of sixty cows get driven into the river in Mauritania and swim over to Senegal with packs of boys swimming behind them with sticks, hooting and hitting them whenever they got tired and tried to stop (I don’t think there are visa requirements for livestock but I’m sure this is also illegal).
I’m so curious to see how the ecology of our river area will change with the rains in August. We have a sub-Saharan climate in the Bakel area, so we get the lowest amount of precipitation in the country. Still, it’s enough to rise the Senegal twelve feet and flood it all two miles to Yacine Lakke, where our clay soils hold the water longer than normal and allow us to plant and harvest two rotations of field crops in just six months. In the meantime, if you come to Senegal and happen to be in the area, just ask for the toubac who doesn’t speak German and I’ll be there, sunburned, covered in dust, and trying to buy some water.